When you marry a person with children, the kids often become very much your own — particularly if their other parent is no longer a part of their lives. However, being a stepparent is not a legal role. You have no legal rights or responsibilities regarding those children.
Can you adopt your stepchildren and become their legal parent? That depends. Both legal parents must agree to it. If the children's other parent is no longer alive, then you need only your spouse's approval. However, if the other parent is still alive and a court hasn't terminated their parental rights, you will first need to get their consent.
Some parents may agree to terminate their parental rights. However, others resist giving up those rights for any number of reasons — including being a thorn in their ex's side.
That doesn't mean there's no chance of adopting your stepkids. There are several potential ways to get biological parents' rights terminated.
If the other parent is male, is there any question about whether he's actually the biological father? When a child is born to a married heterosexual couple, the husband is the "presumed" father. If it can be shown that he's not the child's biological father, then he has no right to stop an adoption.
If a parent (male or female) is the biological parent and refuses to terminate their parental rights, you must be able to show that they're either an unfit parent or that they've abandoned the children. Fitness is determined by the courts. Things that could make a parent unfit include alcohol and/or drug addiction, incarceration or a mental disorder.
If a parent hasn't seen their children or contributed to their financial support for an extended period, they may be found to have legally abandoned them. If that's the case, their parental rights — including their right to block an adoption — may be terminated.
If you and your spouse are considering naming you as the other legal parent of your stepchildren, the process is considerably easier if the other parent willingly surrenders their parental rights. If that person is prepared to battle it out in court, the process can be more complicated. Either way, a Tennessee family law attorney experienced with handling stepparent adoptions can help you.